Murder suspect's arraignment postponed

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— Before Thomas Lee Johnson enters his plea to a murder charge, his frustrated attorney wants all the evidence the prosecution holds and answers to a state statute that deals with insanity.

Johnson was scheduled to enter pleas Tuesday for the charges that have been filed against him for the death of Lori Bases and the vandalism of her sport-utility vehicle last spring.

Johnson, 30, was scheduled to be arraigned on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree criminal trespass and criminal mischief in 14th District Court Judge Richard P. Doucette's courtroom.

It was clear early on that the arraignment would not happen because Johnson's attorney, Norm Townsend, filed numerous motions last Friday and one Tuesday morning that Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James was not prepared to address on Tuesday.

"It is unfair to the state and victim's family to respond to these motions from off the top of our head," St. James said.

Townsend filed a total of nine motions that illustrate his concern for evidence the prosecution has not yet turned over to him and his ability to introduce testimony in court regarding his client's mental state.

Townsend asked for Doucette to continue the arraignment and in the meantime set a hearing to clear up these concerns.

St. James agreed the hearing should be held but urged Doucette to force Johnson to enter a plea to the charges.

"We are not going to have the arraignment today," Doucette said. "We need to get these motions done. In fairness to both sides, time is needed."

Doucette has decided two hearings will be needed to clear up the two legal issues.

A hearing set for 10 a.m. Feb. 5 is for two motions that deal with evidence Townsend claims has not yet been given to him by St. James.

A second hearing, set for 1 p.m. March 12, will address Townsend's concern about testimony regarding mental condition.

Townsend filed the two motions regarding the evidence because he believes St. James has not yet given him everything he is entitled to according to state statute.

Townsend characterized St. James' unwillingness to turn over evidence as "flagrant foot dragging."

St. James could not be reached for comment to address Townsend's claim.

Townsend wants Doucette to order St. James to turn over all photographs, police reports, audio tapes and videotapes St. James has as evidence.

State statutes require St. James to turn over evidence to Townsend within 20 days after Johnson's first court appearance, which was June 26.

Townsend is frustrated that a videotape taken of the crime scene hours after Bases' body was found in her Steamboat Boulevard apartment has not been copied and provided to him.

"This videotape was made May 12, and we still have not gotten a copy of it," Townsend said. "Here we are seven months later."

In court on Tuesday, St. James responded to the issue by saying his office has had trouble finding an "adaptor" to copy the footage onto a videocassette tape.

Townsend is also requesting that any evidence regarding DNA also be turned over to him.

"This is the first time we have requested material regarding DNA," Townsend said.

The March hearing will hopefully clear up a state statute that provides direction on testimony given during a trial regarding mental condition.

Effective July 1, 1999, the state Legislature amended a statute on how courts were to proceed when a not guilty plea by reason of insanity was entered.

The scope of the statute was broadened, Townsend said.

The statute now kicks into effect when a defense attorney wants to enter evidence in court that deals with a mental condition.

"If the defense intends to introduce evidence of a mental condition or anything during a trial, it triggers the same procedures," he said.

The procedures, which use to be reserved for defendants entering insanity pleas only, are a defendant has to undergo a psychiatric evaluation at the state's hospital, he said.

Defendants who undergo an evaluation must cooperate and are subject to a polygraph test, Townsend said.

"The state gets to use any statements the defendant makes during the evaluation," he said. "They could use it during the trial or at sentencing."

Townsend said his client has no intention of entering a not guilty plea by reason of insanity. Townsend wants two questions answered.

The first is to define mental condition.

"The statute does not define what a mental condition is," Townsend said. "What does that mean? I don't know."

The second question Townsend wants answered is what is meant by "cooperation" for the evaluation.

"A defendant has a right to remain silent," Townsend said. "What does cooperation mean? Does a defendant have to talk about the crime?"

Townsend is hopeful the hearing will clear up these two issues.

"I want to be able to tell my client what would happen if we decided to introduce mental condition testimony," he said. "I don't know the answers."

Townsend is not happy the case will be delayed with these two hearings but stresses it must be done.

"We are not interested in delaying this," he said. "But we need to be careful. If that results in delay, it is unavoidable."

The murder charge Johnson faces carries a punishment of life imprisonment or death if he is convicted.

If Johnson is convicted of criminal mischief, he could serve one to 16 years in prison. The trespass charge carries a minimum prison term of six months and a maximum of eight years.

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